So, in my last article on this subject, I discussed characters having niches that they fit into, and specifically addressed combat niches rather than addressing the whole.

Which I got called out on, and to be honest, rather fairly (though, I already had some thoughts on this before working on the next article), as as I’ve already posted about not too long ago, Combat Isn’t Everything. It was a zoomed in view of a specific part of the design of the entire game.

Sometimes, I really really want to combat the lock. I think I have it this time... nope, there goes another pick.

Sometimes, I really really want to combat the lock. I think I have it this time… nope, there goes another pick.

On the other hand, if you have a game that has more differentiation between character ability outside of combat, you can easily change things up a bit balance wise, as long as the balance works across the entire game. A character that can, for instance, let you gather more money in some way, either through pickpocketing, increasing the drop amount of monsters, etc, can increase your party strength by allowing you to buy better equipment faster than a normal party. So, they can be weaker in direct combat by comparison.

A character who would let you bypass combat in some way, by taking secret passages, or some form of stealth, would also increase your party strength, as less combat means less attrition, and could also be less effective in direct combat to balance these abilities.

One game that did this very well was the Japanese only Dragon Quest Monsters Caravan Heart.

Though I won't tell you how, its totally possible to play this in English, search around.

Though I won’t tell you how, its totally possible to play this in English, search around.

To put some context, I’ll do a rough overview of how the game worked.

In the game, you had between 1 and 3 wagons in your Caravan. Each wagon would have a guard monster. Your guard monsters were entirely only used in combat, so they aren’t the important part of this discussion.

They weren’t the only part of your Caravan though. Each of your wagons could carry up to 4 humans who had various classes. Each turn in combat, starting with the first character, one of the characters in your wagon would do his special combat action after the guard monster for that wagon went. On the second turn, the second character in your wagon would do his special action. etc. etc.

But the character classes also had some neat out of combat effects. The cook for instance, had an ability that let you use less food when adventuring. The game used a meter like fatigue from a Roguelike called “food” and you needed food to keep adventuring. Being able to do this longer was incredibly nice. The cooks actual combat ability wasn’t that strong (though kept you going longer as it healed MP every round), but his ability to preserve food was a necessity in the early game. You could even get updated versions of the Cook, all the way up to Master Chef, that healed even more MP per round, and conserved your food.

Wait, no, not that type of Master Chef.

Wait, no, not that type of Master Chef.

His MP and food conservation abilities didn’t make your party better at combat, it just let you explore much much longer. Its power, but a different KIND of power than just pure combat destruction. The game was filled with neat ideas like this, and is the best JRPG example I can think of when it comes to combat and noncombat balance. And even though originality isn’t good for its own sake, Caravan Hearts unique party building is definitely something I would suggest trying it out for some inspiration for a unique approach to character balance.

Out of combat vs combat balance is definitely something you can play with. The stronger a character is in one arena, the less strong you need to make them in another arena. The one thing I would suggest, and what we will talk about next article, is that no character should ever be BORING in any arena, even if they aren’t as strong.

So what is your opinion on Out of Combat vs Combat balance. What games do you think do it well? Have you implemented Out of Combat strengths in your own game? Join us in the comments below, or on the discussion topic on our forums!


Skyforge began in a poll in the community when I asked what region they would like to see next, I figured Crimson Towers or the Cylithid Triangle would succeed… but I wasn’t exactly surprised when Skyforge pulled out to an early lead.

Skyforge was described thusly: A floating magitek fortress home to the enigmatic High Elves, it has recently gone dark, its last known location above the Tempestus Rift.  Some speculate the High Elves magitek creations finally rose up against them.  Bounty: Lord Alias’Thra

So these few sentences put all sorts of ideas whirling in my brain about how everything could look; this is a common practice of mine if I am having trouble visualizing what I want, “write about it.”  When the time came to start development on this pack, I sat down and hammered out some key words that could apply to just about everything in the pack.

  • Manaforge, brass and golden fluted designs
  • Powered by Mana
  • Floating city
  • Elvish designs, whirls, fluttering banners
  • Crystals
  • mana corrupted, sick on mana, overpowering
  • spires, towers, minarets
  • otherworldly creatures, summoned through great runic portals
  • crystal powered mana golems
  • runes, lots of runes
  • reds, golds, desaturated purple stone, white stone

So with these, I had a lot of direction for myself in terms of design and color choices; of course then it was time to drill down into specifics.  I started with the battlers, since their visual design would probably feed back into the environment design and vice versa.  I had the directive for about 5 battlers, and some ideas for what those could be from a colleague; we were thinking 3 “regular” enemies, a mini-boss, and a boss.

After a while of pondering some different things I would like to see, and things I knew didn’t exist in the RPGmaker world at the time, I started bringing them to life.  But first, to name them.

  1. Manaforge Golem –  brass and gold golem, mana engine on back
  2. Mana Glutton Elf – An elf dreg, overdosed on mana, ragged
  3. Nightmare Eater – The portals in Skyforge supply mana, but also other more terrifying things
  4. Miniboss – Manaforge Dragon – a brass and golden dragon, in its chest is a mana engine
  5. Boss – Lord Alias’Thra – It is unknown whether Alias summoned the great nightmare through the portal, or if it came unbidden to him.  Either way, this possessed architect must be destroyed.

So the names and their rough descriptions were done, it was then time to think about the places they inhabited.

Underbelly – A warren of mana tubes and once great architecture, now crumbled and built atop of.  This ancient part of the city was once home to many, now it has fallen to disrepair and is crawling with mana driven monstrosities.

Central Square – The greatness of the elvish lords of Skyforge is on prime display here, towers hung with banners and golden statuary dominate this central location.  In the distance, the Great Spire is visible… with darkness seeping from it into the sky.

Portal atop the Great Spire – Atop the great skyforge’s tallest tower is Lord Alias’Thra’s personal chambers, and his greatest work.  Flanked by the electrifying clouds of the Tempestus Rift, he activated his portal; the most powerful thus far created.  It would bring enough mana to power 10 Skyforges.  But it also brought something else.

And thus, Skyforge was born.  After a quick read by some colleagues, the designs were approved and I moved onto the next step: concepting the art

I copied my list of keywords into my photoshop document first, then just started playing around with shapes and silhouettes.  I would sketch and draw linework on top of these later, but nailing the silhouette was my first priority.  I usually draw my enemies as I’d like to see them, since I am a pretty big fps(hey, I also played skyrim in first person; but some of my earliest memories are of Doom on an 486) guy, having the drawn gun in the bottom kind of helps me extrapolate what I’d want to see in-game if I was playing a shooter/first-person adventure.


First up was the golem, a lumbering gold and brass beast filled with whirling gears and powered by unstable mana.


The elven lords of Skyforge have been driven mad by their excessive mana consumption; their tattered regal robes are a testament to how far they have fallen.


The portals are only supposed to be for mana extraction… however the elves were quite tight lipped about some of the other things that occasionally came through.  Since the city has fallen into such a state of disrepair, these nightmares have spread everywhere.


Mana-forged dragons guard the lords of the city, but now bereft of their masters, they exist only to destroy and feed.  At least they have kept the nightmare population down.


Another concept for the dragon, ended up going with the previous entry because of it fitting better on the screen.


The corrupted high-lord himself, totally consumed by the nightmares that pour into the city.

There might be another “optional boss” but we will have to wait and see.

Moving on from the battlers, it was time to define the regions that would serve as a backdrop to fighting them.  For the first one, I was having a bit of trouble visualizing exactly what I wanted, so I did a bit of writing to set the stage.

   Shayde arrived in the darkness, shimmying up her grappling hook into the underside of Skyforge.  An ancient sewage pipe, perhaps?  It made little difference as she swiftly made her way through the passage of ancient brittle stonework.  She landed deftly, dropping out of the pipe and into a large antechamber filled with broken mana tubes, crumbled statuary, and a vaulting central structure profuse with adornments and runes, still visible beneath a caked layer of dust and aged cracks.  In fact, there were many large structures, all feeding up into the darkness above.  This must have been an ancient mana power routing station, some of the pylons still flickered with light.


Note: the third person character here is not Shayde, but another character of mine I happen to use to concept out shots like this.  Similar to the fps shot, I like to think of how I’d see an area in a game, and how it would compel me to explore it.  This isn’t necessarily how the battleback itself will look, but you can expect a lot of stylistic cues to come from these shots.




A couple more ideas for the underbelly location.

As Shayde entered the central square, her eyes were drawn to the massive gold hewn statue in the center of an elvish lord… perhaps it was her quarry, as vain as she heard he was.  Runes and arches decorated the base of the statue, imbued with mana to pulsate gently.  The great towers that made up the city surrounding the square were hung with intricate banners denoting the houses and sects of the elves living within, some were ripped, torn, and burnt… disturbing.  Elevated above them all was the tower of the city’s lord, sprawling and garrish in its accouterments.  Swirls of runes, gold, silver, and gems ran up the length of the monstrous tower, all framed with banners.  The minaret at the top shone with an unholy light and white lightning.  Surely her quarry was there.


I restarted this one a few times; one thing I’d like to capture in it would be the fact it is a city in the clouds.  Perhaps a bridge with clouds below in the foreground?  I was going for entry into a majestic city filled with towers, but has obviously fallen to ruin to some degree.

   After fighting her way through Alias’s minions, Shayde found herself at the gateway to the summit of the tower.  Giant golden, runic doors opened at a mere brush of her fingers, allowing her egress into a monstrous circular room that seemed much larger than the tower would actually allow.  The space around her was filled at the behest of the giant rippling portal in the center, its rune etched golden surface flaring in time with the lightning outside.  Cords and mana piping ran rampant from the ceiling and floor.  Black webbing emanated from beneath the portal, like some other-worldly blood, spreading and overtaking vast portions of the summit.  The corruption would soon spread over the entire tower, and then the city.  It had to be stopped.


The lords tower and portal.  A large circular room with clouds in the background, obviously that will come through more in subsequent art.

That brings us to the close of the first BattlePack Dev blog.  Hope you enjoyed this early look at some community content coming in the near future!


The one thing that will inevitably happen, for any RPG that gets any popularity, is that someone, somewhere is going to create a tier list to tell you who is the best, and worst characters to use in your party.

Even if you have a fixed party, like a game like Dragon Quest VIII, people will discuss which is the most powerful, which is the most useful, and sometimes, which one is just the coolest.

The answer is Angelo. Angelo is the coolest.

The answer is Angelo. Angelo is the coolest.

And I think your goal, as a game designer, is to make creating a definitive tier list as hard as humanly possible by making all the characters useful in some way. If a character isn’t worth using in your party, they aren’t worth being in the game.

“But how do I do this?” I’m sure you are asking.

The best way to do this, I think, is to focus on what is the character’s niche. What do they DO in combat? And I’m sure that everyone here instinctively builds around this concept. But sometimes, we need to be paying MORE attention to what we are doing, rather than just doing it instinctively.

So let’s do a little investigating.

The iconic RPG niche’s come from D&D: Fighter, Mage, Cleric, Rogue

But what do those even MEAN in actual gameplay. So instead, I’m going to draw from some terminology from the fourth edition of D&D. Now, while I don’t think the concepts in design in 4e were necessarily good for a tabletop RPG, which has much more focus on out of combat abilities to help balance the characters, they have a lot of application for video game RPGs. And well they should, considering they drew heavily from games like WoW.

D&D 4e, interesting system, not ideal for a tabletop RPG

D&D 4e, interesting system, not ideal for a tabletop RPG

The four roles described in 4e were Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller.

Defenders existed to do consistent damage, and absorb blows, protecting the other party members.

Strikers existed to do huge spikes of damage, taking out large targets

Leaders existed to keep everyone in the fight, through healing and boosts

Controllers existed to do area of affect damage and to control the battlefield, to prevent anyone else from being overwhelmed.

Everyone had their role, and while two people might double up on one, it was generally best if you had a balanced party of each. And that is probably how your game should go, too. The other thing they did was make sure that if there were two “defenders” in the group, they could both do it in slightly different, but roughly equal ways.

You don’t have to follow this same structure, but you should have SOME structure involved. How does each individual character in your game carry their load? What is it that they DO? If someone else also does the same thing, how do they do it differently? Join us in the comments or the discussion thread in our forums to discuss this topic.


Knowing that a lot of our readers are now sitting around and just waiting on IGMC Judging and scores, I thought it would be a neat time to throw up a small challenge to occupy your mind.

One of my favorite things to see in RPG Maker games, is creative use of the base tools to do something completely different from what they are intended to.

For example, lets say you wanted to make a gun and ammo system for your Western style RPG.


Just change MP to ammo, have all characters have 0 MP all the way up, have weapons add to their MP, remove the regular attack from their options and add an “attack” skill that costs 1MP. Or have the weapon add several different skills that use different numbers of MP. Then add either a skill or item that refills your MP to full.

And Boom. An ammo and gun system that behaves much differently using the existing tools at your disposal.

And you can create a ton of neat systems that way by creatively using existing systems to thematically do completely different things than intended, and blow the players’ minds.



So here is the challenge. Take the RPG Maker default battle system, then skin it as something that has ZERO to do with fighting. You can either make the system in RPG Maker, or just explain how you would do it. Comment below with your most interesting ideas, link to your built versions.

Maybe one of you will be inspired to make a whole game based around a creative re-skinning.


When you start designing your characters, usually the first things that enter your mind, depending on whether you are starting with story or mechanics, is either their personality, or how they perform in combat.

Now, combat is a key part of a lot of RPGs. And thinking about how each character is going to fit into that part of that is a great idea. But it shouldn’t be the only skillset their characters bring to the table.

For instance, in a lot of games, you end up with a thief character.

FinalFantasyVI058…Fine, ok, Locke, Treaure  Hunter. Our treasure hunter characters tend to know a lot of skills that are used out of combat, such as the ability to open doors or lift small items off of unsuspecting marks. Some games give you minigames for this, but others just have it be an ability that is used mostly in the plot.

And either method is fine, but I feel its very important for most characters to have SOMETHING besides combat they are good at. Most people don’t just spend their entire life learning to fight, they know how to do other things.

Think about what the character’s background is.

Did they grow up as nobility? Maybe they have a very good knowledge of heraldry and etiquette.

Did they grow up in a working class home in an industrial area? Maybe they know how to fix things.

And maybe if they grew up on the street, they will get thi… I mean, Treasure Hunter skills.

Not only can thinking about this enhance the depth of your characters realism, but it can add some incredibly memorable sequences in your game as well.

Going back to Final Fantasy VI. The one section in the game where you have to go around ste…. acquiring  uniforms has always struck me as interesting. And it all revolved around what he could do that wasn’t just beating someone up.

Or what about the entire third chapter of Dragon Quest IV?


I have always loved Torneko Taloons chapter, because it was more about who he was outside of the ability to beat things up, than about what he could do in a fight. It was all just about him wanting to sell stuff and make a better life for his family through his MERCHANT, not fighting skills. And because of that, it has become one of my favorite parts of the game.

Or take the Atelier series. The whole GAME is about what the character can do outside of combat: Alchemy. We focus so much on combat in RPGs, we sometimes forget maybe that isn’t what it all has to be about.

Instead of stretching this article out though with a million examples, or how you include characters non-combat skills into the game, how about you tell me how YOU have used them in your game. Or how you plan to. Join the conversation in the comments below!


For the last bi-weekly battler post, I really wanted something cool.  I really wanted to emphasize the brutish nature of the Flesh Eater tribe from the Azurian tropics.  So I started with some rough sketches and a good idea in mind.


I had some key words written down, and I felt this pose hit most of them pretty well.  From here I went to actually drawing the character.


After roughing in some lines and values, I started to drop in some colors.


Once I got to this point, I made a new layer of everything underneath and started painting directly on top of it.


Obviously that is quite a big jump!  I also redesigned the mask slightly, I was thinking about making him corrupted by Sloth, but then the story didn’t quite turn out that way.

You can go download him here!

I hope to see you back for the blog post series about the first BattlePACK, the Skyforge!


By: Alicia Palmer

Coming up with unique and interesting cultures to populate any fictional word is hard. You want something more than Generic Vaguely Middle Ages European Fantasy World #532908 but let’s face it, coming up with a whole new civilization from scratch is tough. You’re no Tolkien, spending time between class lectures frittering away at the genealogies and grammar structure of kind of sort of racist fantasy races. You don’t have time to come up with new languages and family trees and histories, you just want to make a game!

Well fear not, intrepid yet also-focused-on-getting-this-stupid-game-to-just-work-already developer! You too can follow in the fine European tradition of Stealing Interesting Things From Other Cultures! And today we’re going to talk about how to get started doing that. Don’t worry, it’s a lot more interesting than you think.

Oh, England. Even your national dish is stolen.

Oh, England. Even your national dish is stolen.

Religion, history, language, architecture, food, all of these are resources you can draw inspiration from when building your own worlds, things you can use to make your world stand out and be different, be unique. It’s important to catch the attention of your potential audience, and while you can’t necessarily put Non-Generic Fantasy Culture! in your features list, it’s something that will show up in your art, in your character design, even the names of your characters. While I will never call Europe boring, the Western European Fantasy is done pretty well to death.

Since you’re drawing from actual, real world cultures, you must, must, must remember to respect them. One of the best ways to do this is to Do Your Research. You know that frustration you feel when a TV show or movie gets a very important thing wrong about something you love, or worse, presents a group you belong to in an insulting manner? Make sure you don’t do that to someone else. Yes, this is just a game, but that’s not an excuse.

Oh, oh, no. Why. Why would you do this?

Not Pictured: Respect

Figure out where the potential pitfalls are, and then make sure to step around them as carefully as possible. If you know someone that’s from the culture you want to borrow (and you probably do, the internet is a vast place with lots of different kinds of people) talk to them, ask them questions, find out what they recommend for sources.

Once you start looking for things in history and other cultures, sometimes the plots will seem to write themselves. There are epic plots and tales everywhere, from mythology to history, Journey to the West, Norse sagas, folk tales, mythology, you can take inspiration from literally anywhere. Follow it as loosely or tightly as you want, whatever works best for your story, especially with mythology and fairy tales, don’t be afraid to think of new ways to look at old stories.

You might even find some interesting weird stories like Thor crossdressing. (Source: Happle Tea by Scott Maynard)

You might even find some interesting weird stories like Thor crossdressing. (Source: Happle Tea by Scott Maynard)

Don’t be afraid to mix and match, but also ask yourself why this group has this sort of culture. A culture doesn’t just burst fully formed from the head of Zeus, it develops based on the area of the world that the people who are a part of that culture come from, their needs, what they see, and how they experience the world around them. A culture located far away from the water isn’t going to have seafood as part of their traditional diet, or have a sea-faring tradition, just like a culture from an extremely cold part of your world isn’t going to run around in loincloths and do a lot of farming.

Go digging, learn something new, find something fascinating and then bring it back to use in your game. Give it some new flavor that it might not have had before, something that will make it stand out. Even if it doesn’t make it into this particular game, you’ve hopefully learned something you didn’t know before that you can use for a future project. Reality is often stranger than fiction, so use that to your advantage.

And always. Always, remember to respect the culture you are borrowing from.

Do you use any real world cultural or historical inspiration in your game? Have some advice for people looking to do the same? Join us in the comments section below.


Battler Art – Maneater

in Resources

So a big thanks to TherainED for giving me an initial idea for this monster.  Here is his initial post with the idea.

Obviously I took it in a “slightly” different direction… maybe a bit more monster-y than the image he linked, heh.


A quick sketchbook sketch to get an idea of what I was thinking.


Loose, quick line drawing in photoshop.


Some quick shading and tones.


Here is where I really started getting in there and getting some textures and really fleshing out the surfaces.


First color pass with some hard light and overlay layers.


Final layer with some extra sharpening and some more details fleshed out on a top opaque layer.

After this character we will be moving to a new format that includes a few battlers and some battlebacks, which I am currently calling a BattlePACK.

The new poll will decide the direction for this first BattlePACK, so go vote!

Also, you can download the image files to use the Maneater in RPG Maker

1 comment

how to start

It’s been over 300 days since I last worked on a project. I don’t mean I haven’t touched a game in that time. I’ve made edits to my commercial project and done a lot of work marketing my games. But it’s been that long since I focused for an extended time on one creative endeavor.

This was for the most part intentional. I had accrued a lot of debt in the last few years and wanted to focus on my client work which actually paid. The rest of the time was focused on my health and well-being. Without good health there cannot be extended focus, which is necessary for developing a good game.

Now that I’m in an acceptable financial and health situation, I’m ready to get back to work. I have no shortage of ideas at the moment, but I find it difficult to commit to one. I’m not the only one who been on a hiatus. I know many of my developer friends who have been on creative leave so to speak.

In my typical fashion when presented with a problem, I did some reading on the subject. I like to pull from as many different sources as possible, whether they be blog articles, books or podcasts. Below are what I believe to be important aspects to starting a game or any new creative project.

[click to continue…]


I love RPGs. Video game RPGs, Tabletop RPGs, just roleplaying games in general are a huge hobby of mine.

But, what IS a roleplaying game. Many people have different opinions. And I have mine. Mine are obviously the RIGHT opinions though, so let’s get started. Let’s start first with some ideas of what RPGs aren’t:

RPGs are games where you play a role! Its right in the title!

UUUUGH. Just ugh. You hear this one every once in a while. Its usually put forth by someone trying to tell me that the Legend of Zelda series is an RPG.

I'll give you Zelda II, but the rest of the series, just no.

I’ll give you Zelda II, but the rest of the series, just no.

This argument is beyond stupid. The idea that any game in which you play a role is a RPG means that every game, barring a few abstract games like Tetris, are RPGs. I play the role of Master Chief! I play the role of Mario! Its just a dumb idea. Any definition of RPG that encompasses 99% of all video games, obviously CAN’T be the proper definition of RPG.

Any game where you upgrade your character is an RPG!

OK. At least this is a little closer. It gets towards the right track, but its still waaaay too broad. There are many genres that have had upgrades almost since the beginning, the biggest of which is the Action Adventure genre! In which we have yet another appearance of the Legend of Zelda Game series, which people still insist are RPGs.


If that was the case Metroid would also be an RPG. Resident Evil is an RPG series. Tomb Raider is an RPG series.

I'd actually argue that RE4 is much closer to being an RPG than Zelda ever was.

I’d actually argue that RE4 is much closer to being an RPG than Zelda ever was.

Tons of game genres either already had upgrading as part of their MO, like the Adventure genre in general, or borrow some mechanics from other genres to do it now. That doesn’t make it an RPG.

Any game where you can make choices that affect the story is an RPG!

This one is usually thrown around by Western RPG fans, as a way to invalidate Japanese RPGs, which tend to be more linear.

They like to claim that without the choices to affect the story, they aren’t roleplaying, and therefore, aren’t playing a roleplaying game. Which, I can see their point, but they are missing the reason the genre is called what it is called, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But even ignoring the history of the term, they are again, opening the genre up to games that are clearly not in the genre, most obviously the Visual Novel genre.

The visual novel genre is well known for multiple branching endings, even more so than the RPG genre, so how can that be the defining feature of RPGs?

So what is an RPG?

I’m tempted to say that I’ll know it when I see it, but that is a cop out. The truth is, that the term RPG isn’t really what it sounds like it is. It comes from the history of the term. The history of the term with video games didn’t come from Roleplaying, it came from EMULATING TABLETOP RPG MECHANICS.

We owe it all to these.

We owe it all to these.

It came from emulating the stats and growth and focus on that. Saying that it is based on roleplaying is just wrong. You can have roleplaying in a video game RPG, but that isn’t the defining feature. The defining feature is a focus on character power via stats and some form of growth/leveling. Not just that it features it at all, because tons of games do that now, and some genres have always had it in minor amounts, but that that is the FOCUS of the gameplay.

The focus of the gameplay in Persona is in fusing new, stronger Personas with better stats, better skills, and better defenses. The focus of the gameplay in Borderlands is finding better gear and leveling to spend skill points to pump out better stats that pump out better bullets. The focus of the gameplay of Pokemon is breeding, catching, and RAISING monsters to have better stats to beat up other monsters stats.

This isn’t to disparage any game that I claim is not an RPG. The Zelda series is solid. Resident Evil 4 is amazing! Its about the fact that if someone loved Zelda, I wouldn’t say “oh, well you should play Final Fantasy, its the same genre”. Because it isn’t. Now, they might like both. I tend to at least enjoy both, but that just isn’t a guarantee. They are vastly different styles.

What do you think makes an RPG an RPG? Join us in the comments below.